By Chelsea Fuller
People running through the city punching, kicking and robbing citizens at random is how many Philadelphians now see flash mobs. This is a contrast to the light-hearted and sporadically planned outbursts of dancing and singing usually associated with the activity.
According to various city officials, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and several community activists, the July 29 flash mob incident in Center City that left two people seriously injured has become the impetus for dialogue regarding numerous long-standing issues in Philadelphia’s urban communities.
A story by The Philadelphia Daily News on Aug. 3 reported that a flash mob of 20 to 40 young people attacked, robbed and physically assaulted several innocent bystanders.
Raymond Gatling, 19, was arrested along with three juveniles ages 11, 16 and 17; they were charged with theft, robbery and assault.
Since the incident, Mayor Nutter and Police Chief Charles Ramsey have worked alongside other city officials to try and resolve the issue by using preventive steps like increasing police presence in certain areas, more electronic surveillance and extended police shifts.
Some community members have expressed concerns regarding how these situations perpetuate negative and destructive qualities in young people and the community as a whole.
Chuck Williams, director of the Center for Prevention of School Aged Violence, said the incident has taken attention away from the positive things other local youth have accomplished.
“It is unfortunate that we are in the spotlight in this negative way because this is not what we as a people are about,” Williams said.
A week before the violent flash mob occurred, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM), a grass-roots organization dedicated to helping inner city youth find strength through poetry, spoken word and literary expression, stole the show at the Brave New Voices poetry competition in San Francisco.
PYPM left San Francisco with first place honors, only to return and have their success overshadowed by the flash mob’s violent acts, said Gregory Corbin, PYPM founder and executive director.
Corbin shares Williams’ sentiments and believes the media, public figures and the community should do more to publicize the positive things local youth are doing as well.
“If 20 or 40 misguided youth can be viewed as the face of Philly youth, that is a problem,” Corbin said. “That is what happens because there is a serious lack of propriety in what is portrayed in the media.”
Corbin, who founded the organization in 2006, believes the kids who participate in programs established to help uplift the community deserve attention for doing what is right.
“Everyone needs a sense of validation,” he said. “My kids know they deserve positive attention for all they accomplish, but they continue to do the right thing in spite of the fact they receive little or no credit, and that is commendable.”
Corbin and Williams said they feel the media has played a role in bolstering the harmful situations by not covering the positive achievements equally.
“There has been six local stories written about the violent flash mobs and only two about PYPM’s win in San Francisco,” Corbin said. “It makes you wonder what is their intention?”
At the NABJ Convention, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien had the opportunity to learn about the flash mob incident and how it has affected the area’s youth.
O’Brien, a world-renowned journalist who specializes in shedding light on minority issues, believes it is not the job of journalists, even journalists of color, to be activists. She says there is a level of responsibility everyone should have that can help to alleviate these kinds of issues.
“As journalists of color, we are journalists first,” O’Brien said. “We have a special responsibility to make sure our stories are covered the right way, and we have to remember you can love your community, but there’s a way to express that love and that is to do the best you can in everything you do, that is where our responsibility comes in.”
Williams said he believes it is going to take more than the efforts of the mayor and public figures to fix this and other problems.
“These random acts of stupidity on our streets are going to stop,” Mayor Nutter wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Unveiling plan V (five) soon, but will take all of us—police, community, parents.”
“It is going to take the focused efforts of parents in the community to ensure these kinds of issues do not continue to perpetuate,” Williams said. “By the time our kids reach the system it is too late.”
Corbin agreed with Williams saying these and similar issues affecting our youth could be eliminated if some parents played more of an active role in the lives of their children at an earlier age.
“We have to be more proactive with our kids earlier on in their development,” Corbin said. “Our kids are lacking attention at home and in schools, and they are crying out and it is up to us to hear them.”
Nutter said he plans to schedule future meetings with city officials to further discuss mob prevention.